Weekly Wrap: I’m Not Buying Into the Latest “No Bosses” Trend

I’m not buying the notion that you can run a successful business without bosses or job titles.

My friend Ron Thomas mentioned this recently in a TLNT post titled Giving Up Control: It’s Key to Unleashing Your Workforce’s Power, and he touched on how online shoe retailer Zappos is doing away with job titles and going to an egalitarian management system called Holacracy.

I had never heard of Holacracy before, but a story in Entrepreneur described it like this:

Holacracy is a system of governance that takes things like managers, job titles and bureaucratic red tape out of the equation, distributing leadership and power evenly across an organization. Instead of a standard hierarchy, companies in a Holacracy are consist of different “circles” and employees can have any range of roles and responsibilities within those circles.”

Yes, somebody needs to be in charge

Ron Thomas makes a great case for why top-down management structures are failing us, and I agree with him that highly authoritarian command-and-control structures don’t work very well in most of today’s rapidly changing work environments.

But, I struggle to understand how Holacracy or any other egalitarian system that sounds like it was designed more for an Israeli kibbutz rather than a modern American business is the answer to what organizations need in the 21st Century.

In any environment where decisions have to be made, somebody has to be in charge or designated with the authority to make the call. It’s wonderful to talk about flat business structures where everyone can have a say, but anyone who has dealt with group decision-making knows that it usually leads to chaos and anarchy — as the famous British comedy group Monty Python was fond of pointing out.

“Humans … don’t make group decisions all that well”

I made this point about the “bossless” office trend  a couple of years ago, and it holds true today as we go through what looks like a new round of people trying to sell us on this concept:

Article Continues Below

All of this sounds wonderful in the same way that communism sounds wonderful if you simply remove the human element from the philosophy. Problem is, humans don’t usually make group decisions all that well. Someone — anyone — needs to be the final arbiter if you ever want to get something decided and keep things moving ahead. …

Yes, the notion of a “bossless office” is a great trend story, but count me as unconvinced that it actually works in all but a handful of odd places. As quickly as the world is changing, I somehow doubt that it is changing so fast that we can eliminate having people in charge.

It’s a fun to talk about concept, but I think it probably would have driven someone like the late, great Steve Jobs a little bit crazy. Somehow, I don’t think he could have built Apple to what it is today without any bosses — mainly, him — being in charge.”

Ramping down infatuation with job titles may be a start

The most compelling argument I’ve heard for flattening organizations and getting rid of job titles (a notion that always seems to come from the CEO, who isn’t giving up theirs) is from Girish Navani, CEO of eClinicalWorks, in The New York Times’ Corner Office column. He said:

We don’t have titles. I used to call myself co-founder, but then some of our larger customers wanted to know who the CEO was. Our whole company is built around teams. The only leadership position you can have is team leader. Your career grows through bigger projects and initiatives.

There are pros and cons. Sometimes you have individuals who seek titles. But what I won’t do is create an unsustainable title warfare — today they’re a VP, tomorrow a senior VP, then executive VP. New titles get old within the first day of having them. Titles are self-fulfilling, short-term objectives that you get tired of. Then you aspire for another title, and then you essentially create a business whose growth path of individuals now becomes their title growth rather than serious accomplishments and creating change in the industry.”

This argument — stopping the infatuation with bigger and more pretentious titles — sounds right. So does the notion of having people grow their careers by mastering bigger projects and initiatives. That all makes sense.

And, it is where I would start the discussion about egalitarian management systems that want to remove bosses and authority to manage the larger operation. Perhaps if we deal with title inflation first, we’ll figure out a slightly less hierarchical management system later.

And when we do, we’ll figure out a better name for it than something silly called Holacracy.

Resume stunts are back in vogue

Of course, there’s a lot more than egalitarian management structures in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Being a family friendly boss. The HBR blog always has great information, and this post on how to truly be a family friendly boss and leader just highlights that again. It says, in part: “Managing employees is not easy, and for the most part, human resource policies in large organizations are designed to simplify things. But sometimes, in their tendency to focus on risks and avoid worse-case abuses, these policies serve to discourage supervisors from doing what makes sense.”
  • Yahoo’s $100 million management lesson. I’m rooting for Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to be a success, and quickly canning her COO who wasn’t working out (in less than a year) shows she can be decisive. But how can anyone defend the payout this guy is getting? As The New York Times’ Bits blog notes, “All told, (outgoing COO Henrique) de Castro will walk away with at least $88 million and as much as $109 million for his 15 months of work, according to an analysis of his pay package by the compensation research firm Equilar. .. Even by Silicon Valley standards, his pay was stratospheric. In fact, in 2012, he was the eighth-highest-paid executive in the region … Which raises a question: What were Yahoo’s board members thinking when they agreed to hire him in October 2012?”
  • How to get promoted. According to Fast Company, you should be a narcissist if you want to get promoted. “In an unsurprising result, a University of Illinois and University of Nebraska team found that self-aggrandizing people were more likely to become leaders than normal folks (psychopaths too!). For of the many charming qualities of a narcissist, one of them is a need to feel impact and power —  the selfie-centric striving.”
  • Resume gimmicks are back. The Wall Street Journal says that the long recession, slow recovery, and tough job market has pushed more people to resort to gimmicks to get their resumes noticed. Resume “stunts … became fairly common during the recession and they still are in today’s slack labor market. Companies received an average of 383 applications for every opening they advertised in 2013, according to CEB, formerly known as the Corporate Executive Board, and many are funneled through automated tracking systems that rank résumés based on such things as keyword matches. Bypassing the robots requires a blend of ingenuity, skill and chutzpah.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

Topics